Only a fraction of people showed up at the Arlington County Board public hearing on its proposed tax rate Thursday night compared to a similar hearing earlier this week on budget priorities that drew hundreds.
But those who did could easily be divided into three camps: One group that would like to see the county board raise taxes by 5 percent, the most it legally can this year; one group that would prefer to see the tax rate go up commensurate with inflation; and a third group that simply doesn't want fares to increase for a county program that provides transit services for the elderly and disabled.
The county board has given itself the authority to raise taxes by as much as 5 cents per $100 assessed value, which translates to about $356 more per year for the average Arlington homeowner. Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan's proposed budget includes only a 3.2-cent tax increase, which would cost the average homeowner here about $262 annually.
Both projections are based on the average Arlington home value of about $525,000.
Raise My Taxes More, Raise My Taxes Less
Most of the people who advocated for the maximum tax increase helm nonprofits or agencies that provide or manage affordable housing or social safety net services — groups that have an admitted interest in receiving more money from the county.
Donnellan's proposed budget does not increase subsidies to any Arlington nonprofits.
Mary Rouleau, executive director of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, called a tax increase of up to 5 cents "a compassionate and fiscally sound investment to help families in need."
"We believe this will be necessary to meet the projected need in the county's critical housing and social safety net programs," she told the board. "Arlington should be proud to be a model for these programs nationwide."
Resident Duke Banks asked the board to keep any tax increase in line with inflation, saying the proposed county budget gave more priority to new facilities than existing ones — like nature centers, two of which are on the block to see their operating hours reduced.
"The county budget is not a special projects slush fund," said resident Richard Pollack, citing major projects that are advancing despite cuts to services.
Donnellan and county Budget Director Richard Stephenson said generally dollars set aside for major projects are one-time funds that aren't used for ongoing operating costs, which is where most of the cuts causing people heartburn are found.
Increases Proposed for Elderly, Disabled Transit Fees
Donnellan's budget proposes increasing fees for certain Specialized Transit for Arlington Residents, or STAR program, trips. The curb-to-curb service is available to residents who qualify for Metro Access.
Fees would increase $1 per trip from Arlington to locations in the district, elsewhere inside the Beltway and the Fairfax hospital — up to $5 each way. Such trips account for nearly half of all STAR trips. Fees also are proposed to increase 50 cents per trip, to $9, for trips to sites in Maryland and Fairfax County outside the Beltway.
The program's budget is straining thanks to increased ridership, taxi fare increases and annual contractual increases, according to a March staff report. Contracts for STAR services are negotiated annually.
The increases would generate just less than $45,000 annually.
"We're not using the STAR program to just go do fun things. Mostly, it's for things we have to do in our lives," said Karen Melick, an Arlington woman living with multiple sclerosis.
"Any little bit does make a huge difference. So please consider that when you make increases."
Jeanine Worden, a blind woman who uses the STAR program to get to work and doctor's appointments, said she regularly travels with a disabled veteran who works in a cafeteria in the district. An extra $10 per week in transit costs would be a "real hardship," she said.
The county board has several work sessions planned before final budget adoption on April 20.
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